William recently accepted a new position and had a week off between jobs, so we decided that we should of course celebrate! But how? Go out to dinner somewhere? No. Take a day or weekend trip somewhere locally? No. Take an entire week and travel to a foreign country we know nothing about? Yes. We looked into a number of different countries before deciding on Belize. It has a good balance between being very affordable and having interesting activities, places to explore, and time to relax - which is exactly what we found during our incredible 5 days of exploring the country.
We left SF on Sunday afternoon. William's traveled a lot, but it was my first time leaving the country so I was both excited and a bit nervous. I didn't know what to expect, but I really wanted that first stamp in my passport. Our overnight trip took us from SFO > LAX > ATL > BZE. 12 hours later, with only a few hours of sleep, we arrived.
We finally arrived the following morning on Monday - tired from a red eye, but so ready for our adventure to begin. As we stepped off the plane, we were immediately assaulted by the heat and the intense humidity. For someone who had grown up in a dry climate, it was a shock! I never got used to the weather during the trip, but it was an interesting change from the foggy cold of San Francisco and nice to experience something new.
We decided to stay in the jungle for the first half of our trip for adventure and then finish off the second half on the islands to relax before returning to our normal lives. Our first destination was San Ignacio.
Rather than taking a private shuttle from Belize City, we decided to be more adventurous and save cash by taking public transportation.
It was roughly a 2-hour bus ride from Belize City to San Ignacio. The buses in Belize are confusing - there weren't any schedules or signs to tell when a bus would come, although the locals seemed to know an unwritten schedule, or unlike myself, were just content on being patient. We finally got help from someone who asked where we were going and who later pointed to a bus we should take. The buses surprised me even more once we got on - when people wanted to get off they'd just walk to the front and the driver would slow down enough for them to hop off, but most of the time wouldn't completely stop unless someone wanted to get on. I don't know if there were designated spots that they got off at or if people could just get off wherever. We went through two towns along the way and each one had a main terminal that the bus would pull into and actually stop. We thankfully got off at the San Ignacio station. I still don't know how people know when and where to actually catch a bus though.
pronounced "ah-how" chocolate
In San Ignacio, our first stop was chocolate. We had heard that there was a new store where we could learn the process of making chocolate and get to make our own. It's a small store called AJAW Chocolate and it was exactly what we thought it would be and better. The owner's wife, Elida, walked us through the whole process of making our own chocolate step by step. It's hard work, but had such a sweet reward. The final product didn't taste like anything I was used to buying, even compared to the fancy small-batch factories that have become so popular recently, it had much more depth of flavor and richness.
William and I were the only ones there so we got a fantastic private class. Elida started off showing us how to shell and clean the beans, it was time consuming, but not too hard. Then she showed us how to grind them to make our own chocolate liquor, which was also time consuming and tiring, but really cool to see the dry, roasted beans slowly transform into a smooth, thick paste. Once we had that, we made delicious chocolate drinks. We mixed the chocolate liquor with hot water, a sweetener and various spices. Honey was my sweetener of choice. A mild honey mixed with raw chocolate is absolutely heavenly... who would have known? We also tried adding chili powder and local allspice for some pizazz, which was delicious. Afterwards, Elida mixed brown sugar into the leftover chocolate liquor and we poured it into molds to make our very own chocolate bars. I'm hooked! Where can I get a grinding stone here in the US?
After our amazing chocolate experience, we walked around and explored the town. San Ignacio is fairly small and easily walkable. We were starting to get hungry so we were on the lookout for a good local spot for dinner.
We ended up at Ko-ox Han-nah since I had remembered reading about it on Trip Advisor. Even though it was the evening, it was still hot outside and nothing sounded good to me except cold fresh fruit juice. So we started with some refreshing watermelon juice and coconut water and then had a delicious meal of tacos, curry and of course some rum.
ATM Cave Tour
Actun Tunichil Muchnal
Our all-day tour of Actun Tunichil Muchnal (ATM) was dangerous, but quite possibly the most epic thing I have ever done in my life! It was definitely my favorite thing that we did on our trip and has probably ruined normal caving for me since it was so cool. Although I'm hopeful there will be more experiences like this in other places. We had to hike 45 minutes through the jungle just to get to the cave. Along the way, we waded across a river at 3 different points and Juan Carlos, our guide, taught us about the jungle that surrounded us - he was hilarious but still extremely knowledgeable and taught us about the different insects and plants that we encountered along the way. The Mayan people knew so much about their environment, I was blown away by how much they had learned to use around them, such as which trees they could make rubber from, which plants had medicinal values and that some of the trees even had amazing anesthetic properties when the bark was mashed up. (We weren't allowed to take a camera or anything else with us, so the following photos were provided by the tour company that we went with.)
Once we got to the cave, we had to leave everything at the entrance and put our helmets and headlamps on before we could enter. We couldn't just walk into the cave, there's a big pool of water coming out of the entrance that we had to swim through. I had no idea what to expect in the cave so it was a bit ominous swimming into the unknown. We were in the cave for about 4 hours and almost the entire time we were in water that was mostly ankle to waist deep, although being the shortest person in the group, there were a few times I had to swim through areas that the taller people in the group could walk through. There were breathtaking massive caverns as well as spaces so small that we had to contort our bodies just to fit through. Some of those areas were scary, we were trying to swim through small spaces with the current going against us and it was difficult to pull myself through, but also really exciting at the same time. The formations throughout the entire cave were absolutely incredible! Every time I looked up, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. There were different colored structures depending on what mineral what coming through, and some were even crystalized and looked like draping curtains. Nature is absolutely astounding!
After hiking for over an hour through the cave, we reached a point where we climbed up out of the water into a higher chamber to see the remains and artifacts of the Mayan sacrificial chambers. We were asked to remove our shoes and only proceed in our socks in order to better preserve the environment. It was incredible to see history so well preserved - there were beautiful clay pots scattered all over the different chambers and even skeletal remains in the last few. Everything had been left just as it was found. It was amazing to see some of the history of the Mayan people and hear about the crazy sacrificial rituals that went on in these different chambers from the Mayan's belief system.
Parrot Nest Lodge
While in San Ignacio, we stayed at a magical place called Parrot Nest where we slept in a treehouse! The property is filled with tons of foliage and beautiful flowers that I'd never seen so I felt as though I was entering another world as soon as we walked through the gates. There was so much beauty to explore and best of all, there were hammocks everywhere to relax, which was quite welcome after our adventures.
Marcus, our host, was a hilarious and very easy going guy who made our stay extremely enjoyable. He also has a couple of very friendly dogs who helped to give me a tour of the grounds and feel at home.
pronounced "shu-nan-tun-ish" ruins
One of the things that I really wanted to do while in Belize was to see Mayan ruins, so in the morning before we left San Ignacio, we took a trip to see Xunantunich. There are a number of places in Belize to see Mayan ruins, we decided to go here since it was close to San Ignacio and was one of the larger sites. Since we didn't have a lot of time to stay there, we decided to explore the area on our own rather than hiring a guide to explain the history of what we were seeing in more detail. Next time I go to see ruins, I think it would be interesting to learn more about them. Regardless, they were still amazing to see and I'm so glad that we went.
Climbing is allowed on all the structures of the site so I decided that I wanted to climb the tallest temple. It was extremely hot that day and that, coupled with my acrophobia, resulted in me clinging to the sides of the temple as I tried to climb to the top. There are no safety rails or ropes of any kind, but I made it to the top (and back down). The view was breathtaking. I could see everything surrounding the temples for miles. I can only imagine what it would have been like for the Mayan people. They must have felt like they were on top of the world.
After our visit to the magnificent Xunantunich ruins, our stay in San Ignacio came to an end. Since our first bus trip to San Ignacio was successful, we decided to again save some cash and take the bus back to Belize City in order to catch the water taxi that would take us to the islands for the rest of our stay in Belize.
We took a short 20 minute walk through Belize City to get from the bus terminal to the water taxi that we needed to take. When I was first planning the trip, I thought that we'd possibly stay in the city for part of the time and explore. Nope, nothing to see here.
The water taxis are a bit more like ferries. It was a bumpy 45 minute ride to Caye Caulker, the island we stayed at. Caye Caulker is the smaller island, it's less fancy than it's larger northern counterpart - San Pedro, but we found it to be more down to earth and casual with more local places to explore rather than lots of hotels and touristy things to do, which are found on the larger island.
By the time we arrived, it was late in the afternoon. We got a taxi to the apartment we were staying at - the taxis on the island are all golf carts, it was quite a sight to see them zipping around. The apartment we were staying at had two bikes for us to use, so once we settled in, we rode into town to look for a place to grab dinner. We ended up riding the bikes everywhere during our stay there and I was highly impressed that I didn't fall over once or crash into anything. It's the little things. For dinner, we ended up at a small place called Terry's Grill, which was essentially someone's backyard, but still a chill place to hangout. After a meal of jerk chicken and grilled lobster, we called it a day.
On Thursday we took a water taxi up to San Pedro, the larger island just north of Caye Caulker so we could explore that area and see what it had to offer.
After the adventures at the beginning of the week, we decided to get massages. Ocean Essence Spa was small and located at the end of a dock so you could enjoy the breeze and sound of the water during the massage. To our surprise, we not only got to enjoy that, but also a massive thunderstorm as well. It's not every day you get a massage with thunder and lighting going off all around you! It was a little hard to relax and enjoy it because of the weather, but still exciting and very different.
After the storm subsided, we went out in search of chocolate. A very friendly receptionist at one of the hotels recommended a local shop called the Belize Chocolate Company. We headed there and discovered wonderful handcrafted chocolates, we tried a dark chocolate truffle, chocolate caramel, and a dark chocolate covered marshmallow, and the most unique of all - chocolate tea. Chocolate tea is made simply from the leftover shells that encase the chocolate beans and tastes fantastic! It's not thick and sweet like hot chocolate, but has more of a pure dark chocolate flavor without the added sweetness. Delicious.
Once we had our momentary fill of chocolate, we left to explore more of the town. Along the way we stopped by Elvi's Kitchen, a local restaurant, to try their coconut curry after having it recommended to us. It was amazing! It had fish and shrimp and even fried plantains on top. We ended up liking it so much that we ordered two more to go so we could take them back with us for later meals and snacks.
Before catching the water taxi back to Caye Caulker, we made one last stop at Moho Chocolate - because, let's face it, the real reason that we even went to San Pedro was for the chocolate shops. We were able to get locally made bars of dark chocolate, which I dare say is some of the best chocolate I've ever had. Why am I falling in love with everything I can't get in the States? The grass is always greener on the other side I guess, right?
Once we got back to Caye Caulker, we spent the rest of the evening wandering around the town and scoping out places that we wanted to go to the next day. It's such a cute area with small shops and restaurants everywhere. The island is really small and easy to walk around, and with bikes it's even easier. The main strip where most of the shops are is along the water and there are palm trees everywhere. It was so much fun to experience two different places, both the jungle and the island, that were so different from what I was used to.
For our last full day on the islands we went snorkeling. How can you go to islands without taking advantage of the beautiful clear water? William had gone before, but it was my first time so I was very excited to try it. While walking around the previous night, we found a wonderful guide named Carlos, who we decided to schedule the tour with. He took us and three other couples to three different locations around the island for a couple of hours of snorkeling. Like the other days, it was really hot and so it was amazing to spend the afternoon in the water.
Our first stop was at the coral gardens. It's a relatively new sanctuary, but still fascinating to see all the different types of sea life. Growing up on the west coast, I've never really experienced clear water, or even water that was warm enough to invite you in, so this was quite a treat for me.
Next, we went to Shark Alley to swim with the sharks and rays. They are such wonderful creatures and so much fun to swim with. They are all very passive, which is good since I accidentally kicked a shark while getting off the boat. I, of course, swam like mad in the opposite direction (not that that would do any good if I had actually pissed it off since swimming like mad only got me a few feet away), but thankfully they just swim around you and don't care. Carlos caught a shark and a ray to let us pet them, their skin feels like rough leather.
For our last stop, Carlos took us to a shipwreck so we could explore both that and the surrounding reef that it had run up on. The water was much deeper in the area surrounding the wreck. It was a bit disconcerting to see so far down, but it was also really nice to see what was under me. I never liked swimming in the ocean or lakes growing up and not knowing what what beneath me, that's when my imagination starts to go wild.
Snorkeling was a lot more tiring than I expected, but still a great experience that I'm thrilled to have gotten to try. I think I really just loved being in the clear, warm water. Even though snorkeling was tiring, it still felt wonderful and freeing to be able to swim around in the water on a hot day.
We made wonderful memories and now I finally have a stamp in my passport! This was my first trip, but not my last, only the start of many more to come. I look forward to exploring and experiencing all of God's wonderful creation.